This year’s Update Conference focused on Apple’s iOS, native apps, and how they are changing the way we interact with the Internet. Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry, and the mobile web are also a huge part of this evolution, but Update presented the view that Apple provides better tools for developers and designers to really create the next level of mobile experience.

Update took place in Brighton U.K. on September 5, and was part of the larger Brighton Digital Festival, which brings together a diverse range of conferences and exhibitions about digital culture, art, and experience. Update was unique as it paid as much attention to the experience of the conference as it did to its content. The schedule was meticulously timed, interstitial moments were crafted with musical performances and secondary bite-sized presentations helped keep attendees focused and entertained.

The common theme for all speakers at the conference was experience—what defines a successful one and what the goals should be to create them. Matt Gemmel’s whimsical presentation illustrated some of the better UX principles for iOS: do less, be useful, and support different user types. He put this in contrast with some of the worst ideas in UX: more is better, don’t try to understand your user, and support every possible feature. Matt also talked about his view that mobile development is about liberating the user to perform daily tasks in diverse contexts with equal effectiveness to the task’s traditional location.

This idea of context in mobile design was discussed by most speakers at the conference. A panel led by conference creator Aral Balkan discussed the nature of mobile devices and their users. The panel was asked, “Who is mobile, the device or the person?” Devices continue to differentiate themselves by form factor and function (smartphone, tablet, laptop, and desktop). People now choose a specific device based on the task at hand, their level of mobility and their physical context—whether traveling, cooking, learning, working, relaxing, etcetera. This is a concept further discussed by Joshua Topolsky in his article The Continuous Client, about how an experience is designed to be relevant and available on multiple devices. The concept of device-as-context was also proposed by speaker Relly Annett-Baker. As a content strategist, she spoke about how crucial it is that copy and other content be tailored to the type of device being used and that content should be as device specific as design.

Visual design was also focused on as an essential component of a great product experience, affecting everything from the application’s color scheme and visual interaction down to its icon. Sarah Parmenter presented a method of understanding products using a grid whose X-axis ranges from “entertainment” to “tool” and whose Y-axis ranges from “fun” to “serious.” She asserted that locating an application on this grid is an effective first step to guide the user interface and visual design, and to help designers make decisions regarding the use of standard versus custom controls, color palettes, and the overall visual experience. This was expanded upon by Jen Gorden in an article about different types of iPhone apps as well as covered in Sarah’s article on iOS user interface design.

Presenters went on to discuss how the technology itself can play a major role in the experience of the mobile web. Whereas newer mobile operating systems are innovating on the user experience, they are only available to a small percentage of global users. So while designing for less sophisticated devices may not be as cutting edge, it is important that mobile apps are designed to not only be great experiences but also have clear, practical goals. A side presentation by Terence Eden pointed out that in Africa services such as mobile banking are done via SMS and USSD. So even though the visual and interaction design are important, the base functionality is the primary concern and should not be forgotten.

Anne Debenham spoke of the current state of digital education in the United Kingdom. Although the presentation was specific to England, it discussed the concept of “digital natives” (those born into the digital age) and “digital immigrants” (those born in an earlier time who may have a less digital vocabulary and understanding). She pointed out that this may be affecting educational policy as information and communications technology programs are currently threatened by budget cuts. She described an education system that places a higher priority on learning Latin than learning JavaScript or Objective-C, uses digital surveillance on its students via screen sharing, and permits the confiscation and inspection of digital devices when deemed appropriate by a teacher.

The conference also highlighted how research, interaction, design, and code are all equally important to creating a meaningful experience. This was echoed by Joachim Bondo, who compared creating mobile applications to the craft of watchmaking. Attention to detail and the level of craft used to design the exterior and the inner workings can make the difference in creating valuable products. Sarah Parmenter reinforced this by saying the success of an experience is influenced by having correctly defined its users, selected the most relevant tasks, and created a design that supports these.

Keynote speaker Cennydd Bowles spoke of this concept in terms of product value and advertising. He focused on honesty in UX and brand advertising. He shared a quote from Hugh MacLeod: “If you talked to people the way advertising talks to people, they’d punch you in the face.” Cennydd went on to highlight how good UX affects market value, and used the UX Fund as an example. He summarized this by stating that a company’s total value is equal to its business value (the companies monetary value) multiplied by its customer value (the value received by the products end user); if either are zero then so is the result.

Although the conference's main focus was iOS, speakers discussed in general how the choice of native app versus web app can affect experience and accessibility, and influence the value of an application. There was also a discussion of whether it’s even appropriate to create native apps if they’re forced to exist within marketplaces that are device-restricted, sacrificing the accessibility provided by web apps.

Jeremy Keith advocated for the open web, emphasizing that mobile applications should be accessible to all using the the standard delivery mechanisms: one way linking via URL’s, presented with HTML and transported over HTTP. He compared content on the Web with the economic idea of stock and flow, saying that the Web consists essentially of two different content types: stock, the durable data, and flow, the transient data. He argued that both types, especially stock, should be universally accessible and the experience only progressively enhanced to incorporate newer devices, and native apps are essentially counter to this. This topic continued in a panel discussion of native versus web apps, which discussed the benefits native apps have on the user experience, with their more customizable features, compared to the downside of their closed system of information delivery.

Update is a one-day conference in its first year. Although I feel it could benefit from longer presentations (45-60 instead of 30 minutes), it managed to cover a breadth of topics such as UX, design, development, and content strategy. I came away from the conference with a reinforced view of how these are all essential to creating good products.

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"Apple provides better tools for developers and designers to really create the next level of mobile experience"

wow...really? Ever used Xcode. It is probably one of the worst IDE's I've used.